The Rainforest Alliance recently hosted a session at the 4th annual Centre for Responsible Business conference, ‘India and Sustainability Standards: International Dialogues & Conference’ (ISS 2017) in New Delhi, India. The session invited Indian and international practitioners to share experiences of successful collaborations amongst sustainability standards systems.
To set the stage, I shared how the voluntary sustainability standards industry has matured over time, from its inception in the late 1980s and 1990s, to the growth and diversification of new standards through to the mid-2000s. Following that came new entrants such as company specific standards like Starbucks’ C.A.F.E. Practices and, most recently, a push towards harmonization between standards, as evidenced by the planned merger between the Rainforest Alliance and UTZ. Standards systems have also professionalized, and encompass much more than just audits, engaging in all aspects from policy development, training, auditor accreditation and oversight, traceability and chain of custody operations, and labeling and marketing functions.
In the context of this maturing industry for sustainable standards, panelists were asked how and why sustainability standards systems can cooperate?
Karin Kreider, executive director of ISEAL Alliance noted that as an organization, ISEAL has found that shared learning amongst standards builds opportunities for collaboration. Providing members with Codes of Good Practice in specific areas of standards operations offers a basis on which collaborations can be built. For example, with a view to improving the efficiency of audits, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) are collaborating on a project to apply GIS mapping tools to more accurately and effectively map the boundaries of certified operations.
Vinti Singal, supply chain sustainability manager at GoodWeave India, shared an example of an ongoing collaboration. GoodWeave’s mission is to end child labor in the rug industry and has developed a proven model of “last mile” supply chain monitoring that allows for producer verifications and support right down to the home-based workers in textiles supply chains. GoodWeave wanted to apply this model to support other industries with informal, small producers that are difficult to monitor via traditional audits, and has partnered with the Rainforest Alliance in India to test out this model in the tea supply chain. The tea industry also works with very small farms that require monitoring as well as support and training, and together GoodWeave and the Rainforest Alliance will pilot a new application of this methodology.
Dr. Anurag Priyadarshi, sustainability director of Tata Global Beverages also weighed in with several perspectives, given his roles as director in supply chain companies, consumer facing brands, as well as a directorship on the board of a standards system (UTZ). He stated that the Rainforest Alliance-UTZ merger is a great example of finding ways to collaborate to more effectively bring sustainability standards to more users around the world, and said that the benefits would far outweigh any cultural differences or other challenges that directors considered when evaluating the opportunity.
From the supply chain perspective, Dr. Priyadarshi believes any collaborations that present more unified codes or reduce the compliance burden for operators will always be welcomed. And from the consumer brand perspective, the ultimate need is for a trustworthy standards partner—credibility is paramount when dealing with consumer claims. On the flip side, monopolies might emerge in the standards sector, and perhaps there could be a need for a standards regulator that would ensure fair competition in the marketplace.
Bringing the conversation to the Indian market, Trustea – the Indian domestic standard for sustainable tea—collaborated with the Rainforest Alliance and other groups, and has had the positive effect of creating a large web of sustainability professionals in India as companies seek to gain recognition with the Trustea system.
Other great examples of collaboration in collective learning are on issues such as living wage and pesticide usage. The Global Living Wage Coalition has brought together six diverse standards systems to learn together how living wage ranges can be determined and implemented. Collaboration on pesticide issues has taken place amongst standards such as the Better Cotton Initiative.
Panelists were asked what they see as the most important areas for collaboration in the future of standards development. ISEAL noted one less visible area ripe for collaboration is improving data management functions of standards systems. Audits have traditionally collected many data points on certified operations, but often in a paper-based format, in different languages, and without a database in which to store and analyze key data points that could help monitor impact and identify highest priority implementation challenges amongst operators. Developing information management systems is an obvious area of opportunity for standards to implement bespoke systems, and perhaps share development costs. An example is UTZ, which has licensed their traceability system to another standard, the RSPO.
Panelists agreed that standards should think more expansively on how best to use their common missions to create broader platforms for collaboration. By getting information systems and other back-end functions set up correctly, standards systems would be free to focus on higher level environmental and social issues.
Editor’s Note: The Accountability Framework initiative, led by a consortium of environmental NGOs, is tackling the issue of harmonized standards. Learn more on our website: https://accountability-framework.org/